Salt Lake City Head Start: More than just a preschool

Story and photo by NATHANIEL BINGAMAN

Children are the future. In the United States the poverty level is increasing. That increase includes children. So, what are communities doing to ensure that children will grow strong, healthy and educated? One program to assist those in need is Head Start.

Low-income families can involve their 3- to 5-year-old children in Head Start.

According to its mission statement, “The mission of Head Start is to empower and educate young children and families facing adversity.”

The Salt Lake Community Action Program (CAP) opened the first Head Start program in 1965. In its first year the program had 34 students in two classrooms. Today Head Start works with 2,400 different families per year, spread throughout 84 different classrooms. The main campus is located at 1307 S. 9oo West. It also has various classrooms spread throughout the Salt Lake Valley. Children and their families all receive personal attention.

For example, at the beginning of every school year dentists volunteer their time go to the schools and give dental care to every child.

“If you are in pain because your teeth are falling out, you are not going to learn very much,” said Kristyn Hancock, the community partnership manager of Head Start, in a phone interview.

Dental hygiene is not the only thing on which Head Start focuses. The value of a healthy meal is also high on the list.

Children receive two-thirds of their daily nutritional needs during the day. “Our families are on a limited income. Foods that are unhealthy are usually the cheapest,” Hancock said. She also said they serve more than 2,000 meals per day and these are not your typical school lunches. The meals include a wide variety of selections such as pumpkin soup and salmon linguini.

Families with children in Head Start are assigned a family advocate. These advocates work with families and help them engage in their child’s learning.

“We teach parents to read to their kids and how to help them with their homework,” said Kayla Beesley a family advocate in the Head Start program.

Beesley works with 64 families in the Salt Lake area. Her position allows her to help find resources for families. From health care to clothing, she works with local businesses and nonprofit organizations to get families the things they need. Families who have children enrolled in the Head Start program can receive all these services for free. “It is very satisfying to know you are helping someone in their time of need,” Beesley said.

The Head Start program relies heavily on volunteers. According to the website, Head Start places about 4,000 volunteers each year. Volunteers must be 16 years of age or older and complete a background check.

“This job has made me aware of problems that I was not aware of before. Our waiting list is a sign of how much help is needed,” said Katie Smith, the volunteer coordinator for Head Start. “Volunteers help with a lot. They read to the children, play games with the children even help them brush their teeth after breakfast and lunch time.”

Not only do the volunteers help inside the classroom, they can help outside as well. Student-nurses volunteer their time to give free checkups and physicals to the children every school year. Landscapers and painters provide their trades to the interior and exterior of the buildings as well.

“People think we are just a preschool for poor kids,” Hancock said, “but we are so much more.”